Liza Reisel & Mari Teigen
Liza Reisel and Mari Teigen from the Institute for Social Research, Oslo. Photo: Knut Strand

Gender equality policies bring more women to the top of academia

"Nordic academia has been characterised by large gender differences and strong male dominance at the top. At the same time, we have had what is known as the 'Nordic paradox'. In short, the paradox is that despite a high degree of gender equality, there are still very few women at the top of academia. But that's not quite true anymore."

So says Mari Teigen from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Oslo. She is the project manager of NORDICORE, a recently completed research centre funded by NordForsk with researchers from across the Nordic region.

Her colleague, Liza Reisel, also explains that this is a field that is widely researched internationally. Therefore, it has been interesting for NORDICORE to investigate whether the Nordic region is similar to other countries that also have problems recruiting women to top academic positions.

"If you compare academia with other sectors of society, the situation is not as bad as in the business world, for example. But there is an imbalance. And that's a problem, as academia is about the development of knowledge and expertise. To avoid new generations being trained in and with the same mindset, it's important that the top of academia doesn't consist of just one type of person," she says.

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The findings from NORDICORE shows, among others, a slight increase in the number of female professors in the Nordic region.
Copyright: The Institute for Social Research at the University of Oslo

Gender equality policies work. Especially in Norway

One of the areas NORDICORE has studied is the Nordic countries' use of gender equality initiatives in academia. Specifically, NORDICORE has analysed Nordic universities and the institutional measures implemented between 1995 and 2018. The results are striking, according to Liza Reisel.

"The question from the start was whether gender equality initiatives make a difference. Our research shows that coordination of institutional gender equality work and affirmative action do make a difference. And initiatives such as hiring support in the form of earmarked funds for female candidates resulted in a certain increase in the number of female professors," she says.

"I guess we can humbly conclude that Norway is the best when it comes to gender equality initiatives. Whereas in Finland, we feel that there has been a lack of understanding of the issue," Teigen continues.

Mari Teigen elaborates and explains that when you look at the figures from the early 1990s to the present, you realise that the number of female professors in Finland was much higher than in Norway and Sweden, but that the trend has levelled off.

"One of the reasons is that very few gender equality measures have been implemented at both institutional and national level during the period we have studied. Finland achieved high female labour force participation much earlier than the other Nordic countries, partly because the country was more war-prone.

Liza Reisel also points out that the development in Finland is slower than in the other Nordic countries, as Finland has traditionally had a high degree of institutional autonomy in academia.In other words, there have been no overarching guidelines for handling gender equality, diversity and opportunities for advancement.

According to Teigen and Reisel, this is one of the areas where you can really see the differences between the Nordic countries.

"In Finland, you can pretty much do whatever you want, and the top positions in academia are largely based on hiring.The same is true in Denmark, which also doesn't have individual, personal promotion schemes. This is the complete opposite of Norway, which has individual promotion schemes.And then there's Sweden, which has a kind of hybrid system," says Reisel.

"Interestingly, it seems that in Sweden there has been a somewhat greater resistance to gender equality policies in recent years. Without being too categorical, one can speculate whether the anti-gender movement and the radical feminism that has characterised Sweden to a greater extent reciprocally may have contributed to the fact that it is more legitimate to express objections," Mari Teigen follows up.

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There is still a significant overweight of men in professorships in the Nordic region, according to NORDICORE's research results.
Copyright: The Institute for Social Research at the University of Oslo

Work-life balance challenges both men and women

According to Liza Reisel, it has long been assumed that work-life balance in academia was an issue that only affected women. But NORDICORE's research results show, especially in Sweden and Norway, that the issue affects both men and women.

"Our studies show that considerations related to job security and caring are major contributors to academics leaving academia. More specifically, we found that female academics use different strategies to balance family and career," she says and continues.

"We see that some PhD students, both men and women, choose to adjust their careers, slow down or seek positions outside of academia to achieve a better work-life balance. And it's a big problem that we are losing both talent and perspectives due to work demands that are not compatible with a balanced life.

Too narrow criteria for evaluating quality in hiring processes

NORDICORE has also conducted analyses of recruitment processes in academia, and they reveal that there are some institutionalised challenges in promoting gender balance.

"Gender balance is a big part of the initial considerations. But there is still a tendency for candidates to be favoured later in the process based on narrow criteria such as publication in prestigious journal publications. In this way, other key factors for the positions, such as academic housework or administration, teaching and communication, are overlooked," say the researchers.

They therefore believe that there is a great need for institutional procedures that recognise these factors during recruitment.

"The study of hiring processes shows that academia differs from other sectors in that it is narrowly based on one aspect of what constitutes overall competence, i.e. credentials/publication etc. and that there is thus little room for holistic assessment when it comes to career and promotion", Mari Teigen argues.

A set of recommendations

Based on their research findings, NORDICORE has also produced four recommendations on how to address the challenges and promote gender equality and diversity in academia. The recommendations are a call to action for ministries and research councils.

"When you think about gender, equality and diversity, you also get broader and better research, as you get more perspectives, views and nuances," says Teigen, before Liza Reisel concludes.

"The recommendations are about building knowledge and capacity to work with gender equality. To get the best research, you need multiple types of thinking. You don't get that if it's just one type of academic sitting at the top."

Recommendations from NORDICORE

  • Equality Officers: Establish institutional equality officers or offices responsible for continuous monitoring, involvement, and organizational development to improve equality and diversity.
  • Making Gender Mainstreaming Work: Integrate gender mainstreaming into the daily work of top management, ensuring fair and inclusive career paths, gender-balanced decision-making bodies, and cross-cutting integration.
  • Gender and Diversity in Research Content: Integrate gender and diversity perspectives into research content to foster diversity in perspectives, methods, and insights.
  • Policy Coordinating Mechanism: Establish a policy coordinating mechanism at the national level, with Nordic cooperation linked to a dedicated EU network or institution, to support institutions' equality work and address institutional structures and research content aspects

You can read more about NORDICORE's recommendations here.

NORDICORE was one of two Nordic Centres of Excellence under NordForsk's research theme Gender in the Nordic Research and Innovation Area.


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